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Fostering Equitable Opportunities in STEM

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Mandela Washington Fellow at UD creates STEM initiative in her home country of Ghana

Oyenike (Nike) Olabisi with students in Ghana

UD associate professor Oyenike (Nike) Olabisi used visual manipulatives to make science approachable at the GirledUp Ghana science fair.

On a hot day in November, the students of Living Word Assemblies International School in Accra, Ghana, gathered in the schoolyard for their first-ever science fair. It was the culmination of a whirlwind week that launched GirledUp Ghana, whose mission is to empower girls to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The seeds of GirledUp Ghana were germinated some 5,000 miles away, when Ghana agricultural economist Justina Onumah participated in a July 2022 leadership institute at the University of Delaware as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

During her time at UD, Onumah struck up a friendship with Oyenike (Nike) Olabisi, associate professor of biological sciences and academic director of UD’s Mandela program. When Onumah arrived on campus, she was under the weather and missed some kick-off activities. Olabisi, who was raised in Nigeria, delivered a homemade cake to Onumah to raise her spirits. The two women soon clicked over their shared passion to foster equitable opportunities in the sciences.

“Female representation in the sciences has been woefully inadequate, not just in my country, but worldwide,” said Onumah, who is currently a senior research scientist at the CSIR-Science and Technology Policy Research Institute in Accra, Ghana.

Like all participants in the Mandela Fellowship, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Onumah was charged with creating a community engagement plan around an issue in her home country and strategies for implementing positive change. Onumah quickly decided that engaging girls in STEM would be her project focus.

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Justina Onumah

Justina Onumah launched GirledUp Ghana after attending​ the Mandela Washington Fellowship program at UD.​

Olabisi has continued to support Onumah as she worked to create GirledUp Ghana. While the concept was fleshed out by the time Onumah returned home, it took more than a year of program development and fundraising to make the November science fair — and all that has happened since — a reality.

GirledUp Ghana has received support from a Mandela Washington Fellowship grant, funded through the U.S. Department of State, UD’s College of Arts and Sciences, UD’s Provost Office and private donors. It also has a few high-profile cheerleaders, including U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware and the U.S. Embassy in Ghana, which sent representatives to the program launch. Coons met Onumah for the first time when she was at UD and again last spring while he was traveling in Ghana with Vice President Kamala Harris.

In a congratulatory video message played at the GirledUp Ghana launch, Coons said: “When I met with Justina last spring during Vice President Harris’ address in Ghana, I was struck by her enthusiasm and her determination to inspire the next generation of Ghanian girls to be brave and strong and bridge the gender gap in STEM. As Justina is fond of saying, ‘You become what you see.’ Building mentorship networks to provide STEM role models will allow girls to dream big and reach for the stars.”

Onumah and her husband, Edward, had already been active with the Living Word Assemblies International School, so basing GirledUp Ghana operations there was an easy decision. Most Sundays, Onumah meets with GirledUp Ghana members for a range of STEM activities. They also talk about career paths and barriers that can hold girls back, such as imposter syndrome. Most group members are in middle school or high school. A few younger girls sometimes attend, including one or more of Onumah’s own daughters, who are 10, 8 and 3.

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3 Students taking a picture with their artwork

The GirledUp Ghana program empowers girls​ to think of themselves as powerful and smart.​

“I think a later component of GirledUp will involve parental education,” Onumah said.

“Very much, very much,” chimed Olabisi in agreement.

“A lot of women scientists that I know talk about having had to navigate their way to bring their parents into alignment with their chosen career goals because the only thing the parents wanted to hear was that they were going to be a doctor,’” Onumah said.

For the students at Living Word Assemblies International School, most of whom come from low-resource backgrounds, the first step is simply exposing them to science. At that November science fair, most of the girls participating in a session on robotics had never touched a computer before. In another corner of the school yard, students tried out a microscope for the first time.

And under the shade of a canvas tent, Olabisi was using visual manipulatives to help students understand DNA structure and how enzymes work. It was Thanksgiving Day back home, where Olabisi’s husband and children were celebrating without her. But the theme of thanks was every bit as evident in that schoolyard. Bright, smiling faces surrounded Olabisi. Every child had her own science kit — a special surprise at the conclusion of the fair, funded in part by UD. A middle schooler with a shy smile told Olabisi, “This program has built up my confidence and courage. Thank you!”

GirledUp Ghana, and the school where it’s based, lacks computer and science labs, and a well- stocked library. The program seeks donations of computers, laptops, STEM kits and books, as well as financial assistance. To learn how you can help, contact Olabisi at nolabisi@udel.edu or Onumah at jonumah@girledupghana.org.​

Article by Margo McDonough 

Photos courtesy of E-Dok Impressions 

March 04, 2024

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